The nature of the work you do may be more important to happiness than how much you earn


Even if we can�€™t yet persuade business and politicians that their obsession with money as the sole measure of worth is self-destructive and ruinous to society at large, most people�€™s feelings of self-worth have rather less to do just with the size of their bank balance. Feeling uneasy or ashamed of the job you do—even if you do all you can to avoid anyone realizing this—isn�€™t a recipe for a happy life. You can try to ignore it, push it below the level of consciousness, or even deny it altogether, but it will still be there. The amount of personal damage it can cause is considerable.

We�€™re told that more and more young people are demanding better work/life balance and rejecting the overwork, narrow results orientation, and achievement obsession of previous generations. I think this is a misunderstanding.

What these younger people are demanding is more meaningful work: work that provides them a chance of real happiness, personal stimulation, and the sense that what they do matters. They aren�€™t rejecting good salaries, comfortable lifestyles, or future prospects. They�€™re rejecting what they are being expected to give up to get those in many corporations: their personal freedom, their leisure time, their relationships, their ideals, their ethical standards, their sense of what makes for a good life, and their dignity.

They are also questioning the current notion that wealth is the sole measure of value, whether of individuals or corporations.

Feeling good about what you do

What makes you feel good about what you do for a living? Is it just the size of your income?

I doubt that very much. As social animals, people are concerned with their status in the group. Money can be used as a way of enhancing this, just as animals may “prove” their status by larger antlers or bigger tusks. Yet these outward displays of dominance and success only go so far.

People also want to be liked. Being rich may make people defer to you—even suck up—in the hope of getting something out of you, but it won’t make them like you—or what you do to earn that wealth. In fact, it may well make you suspect their motives for hanging around with you at all. The stereotype of the rich person who looks for love but only finds golddiggers is a stereotype because it expresses a truth: that having money is more likely to attract the wrong kind of “friend” that the right one.

Ethics also play a part. To feel good about your job usually means knowing that, if you tell your neighbors what you do, they will value it. They will approve both the outcome of your efforts and the means used to achieve them.

But suppose that you suspect that knowing exactly what you do—and how you have to do it—might cause those same neighbors to look askance and cross the street rather then meet you? Suppose you are employed selling dubious loans to people who can’t afford them, and part of your job is to conceal the exact terms to avoid firghtening them off? You may earn good money, but can you really shut your mind to the consequences of your actions?

Career karma

Whatever we do has consequences; and what we do habitually has them over and over again. Choosing a career or a job that makes you feel uneasy about your actions is going to produce some internal consequences at least that aren’t conducive to happiness.

If your work doesn’t make you feel proud, will the money dull your feelings enough to compensate? If you’re asked to undertake actions that offend your values and ethics, will even oodles of cash quieten your conscience? And if you are brought up against the negative consequences of your emplyment—if it all comes out into the open—how will you feel? How will those you care about feel about you?

Young people have always been idealistic. It would be a sad world where this wasn�€™t so. They have also always been able to see where the compromises and surrenders of their elders have presented them with futures that contain, not what they want, but what their parents think they should have.

We have greater abilities than ever, through modern technology, to build the world we believe will fit with our ideals. We can use our powers for the good of the many or the profit of a few. It would be a disaster if all we do is use that same technology to build a world based on the past: a world enshrining inequalities, attitudes, and tawdry beliefs that we already know are failing to provide a happy society.

When you see some old film of what people of 40 or 50 years ago imagine today would be like, it�€™s so laughable as to make you wonder what they could possibly have been smoking. But is that so very different from looking forward and realizing that the world people are building today is may very well seem mean-minded, greed-obsessed, and stupid—even downright nasty—to our grandchildren?

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